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Moved by a green grace

03 August 2018

A new book by Emma Mason establishes Christina Rossetti as ‘a significant voice in the ongoing study of Christianity and ecology’

Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894): portrait from a drawing by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1877

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894): portrait from a drawing by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1877

IF RAINFALL, showers, dew, and tears sustained the flow of baptismal grace for Christina Rossetti, then the origin of this grace was the sea. In “Lord, we are rivers running to Thy sea”, part of her reading of Revelation 3.21-2, she imagined the Christian as a river that runs back to its source in God, and is restored in the “sweetness” of his waters. In fluvial form, Rossetti wrote, the Christian also douses God’s “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4.24), and so becomes “immutable amid mutability, permanent amid permanence”.

Anticipating the at once tranquil and formidable “oceanic feeling” that Freud later elucidated, Rossetti considered the sea restorative and healthful as well as indicative of God’s vastness and depths. (On the phrase “oceanic feeling”, see Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton, 2010).

Like many Victorians, she travelled to the coast in search of a pelagic remedy for illnesses caused by London’s climate, and claimed that the sea made a “world of difference” to her emotional and physical well-being. She considered Hastings a “lovely place” that was “good for London eyes”; Seaford a retreat where “The air is good, & the sea is good”; and Torquay a place that “greatly revived” her.

Sea-creatures also appealed to her because of their hybridic being as water and matter, and she referred to sea-mice and sea-ferns as “marine relative[s]” of things on the land. Rossetti also collected pebbles and shells, but, ever respectful of the rights of her fellow beings, did not take living creatures away from the sea, and bemoaned [her brother] William’s aquatic collection of “bottled monsters”.

Writing to him about his “smelly” acquisitions, she wryly reported that “my investigations are carried on from a campstool pitched some way from the water’s edge — so are by no means exhaustive. Shingle I see: & I think I have heard of sand.”

OF ALL the sea creatures she encountered, Rossetti had a particularly vivid response to an octopus she viewed in Brighton aquarium in 1886. She was sent to Brighton in August with her niece Olivia to recover from the shock of her mother’s death. While the family were long aware of the grave state of Frances’s health, Rossetti, who had always lived with her mother and was her carer for much of this time, was left particularly stunned by the bereavement (Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A literary biography, Pimlico, 1995).

Rossetti remembered that she and Olivia “haunted the aquarium” together, and were transfixed by a creature that appeared to them to be directly out of St John’s vision. As she wrote in The Face of the Deep, “of all living creatures” the octopus most approaches “Satanic suggestion”:

Inert as it often appeared, it bred and tickled a perpetual suspense: will it do something? will it emerge from the background of its water den? I have seen it swallow its live prey in an eyewink, change from a stony colour to an appalling lividness, elongate unequal feelers and set them flickering like a flame, sit still with air of immemorial old age amongst the lifeless refuse of its once living meals. I had to remind myself that this vivid figure of wickedness was not in truth itself wickedness.

The octopus symbolised “wickedness” for Rossetti not only because it consumed its prey with such disregard, but also because of its own mistreatment, an incarcerated creature for whom the aquarium served as a prison. As St John stated, God will not only judge the living and the dead, but “destroy them which destroy the earth” (Revelation 11.18).

The octopus is not truly wicked for Rossetti because, torn from its aquatic home, it is caught within a human logic of abuse and cruelty that only the new creation could obliterate.

MANY readers of Revelation feared that the sea itself would be obliterated, and took literally the prediction that following the passing of “the first heaven and the first earth” there would be “no more sea” (Revelation 21.1). As Rossetti wrote in Seek and Find: “At first reading ‘there was no more sea’, our heart sinks at foresight of the familiar sea expunged from earth and heaven; that sea to us so long and so inexhaustibly a field of wonder and delight.”

But she answered this anxiety with a reference to the prophet Habakkuk, who, after questioning God, is “spoken” to by him through the natural world (Habakkuk 1.3). While God is “the chief singer on my stringed instruments” (3.19), his voice embodied in the environment, Habakkuk also suggests that his word or melody signifies only through enquiry and exposition.

Rossetti is interested especially in Habakkuk 3.8 and 3.10, wherein the prophet suggests that God removes willingly any obstacles that impede his people — sea, mountain, sun, or moon — and then transforms these phenomena into things through which he can communicate.

She follows her reading of Habakkuk by rethinking the line “no more sea” as meaning that the sea does not vanish, but rather becomes one with God. Inseparable and alike, the sea and God become one entity, a message to the human to treat the natural world as she would the divine.

As Rossetti claimed, Revelation and Habakkuk were both written “for our instruction as regards ourselves, and consequently as regards the visible creation in reference to ourselves”. In her reading, John prophesies not the disappearance of water from the earth, but the passing away of those who refuse to perceive the sea as God, and so demean it as a commodity or resource.

In Rossetti’s vision of the new creation, the sea remains in its crystalline form as a “sea of glass” (Revelation 4.6), as well as “mingled with fire” (14.2). At once transparent and consuming, the sea dissipates distinctions between the sea and land, non-human and human, rural and urban, divine and material, as things are reconciled to each other in a renewed creation.

As Rossetti wrote in Seek and Find: “Thus we shall not lose the translucent purity of ocean, nor yet a glory as of its myriad waves tipped by sunshine . . . What shall we lose? A barrier of separation.” In her narrative, the unfolding of the new creation negates the idea of the cosmos as an assembly of delimited physical parts outside of the mind, and reveals it as a non-physical realm of energies in which things appear through their faithful experience of them.

If there is “no more sea”, there is no more “unrest, of spurning at limits, of advance only to recede”; in its place appears a baptismal, regenerating body of water in the New Jerusalem’s “pure river of water of life, clear as crystal” (Revelation 22.1).

Extract from Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith, published by Oxford University Press in June 2018, available in hardback and eBook formats, £30 (CT Bookshop £27).

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